14 Jun From Tong Laus to Towers: A Change of Scenery for a Change of Community in Sai Ying Pun
Sai Ying Pun is an area that’s rapidly changing. Over the past decades, people from Hong Kong and far beyond have made it their home in search of new opportunities. From early British military camps and the immigration of Chinese nationals in the 19th century to the emergence of expats in the last decade, Sai Ying Pun has always been known to be a place of migration.
What used to be a Tong Lau, now an open area with marks of the old tenement on surrounding walls
The name Sai Ying Pun translates to ‘West Camp’, alluding to its history as a British military camp. In the 19th century it developed as a residential district accommodating the many new immigrants from mainland China. With the immigrants came the emergence of Tong Laus, tenement buildings with Chinese architectural influences. Tong Laus were shop houses: a shop at the ground floor and two to three-storeys with an external staircase to accommodate the owners and their families.
As of today, Sai Ying Pun is one of the few areas on Hong Kong Island where you can still find these authentic pre-war tenement buildings.
The neighbourhood has experienced a vast amount of change in the last decade. The MTR and Centre Street escalator have brought affluence and new high rise apartments to Sai Ying Pun, as well as more contemporary and upmarket restaurants, shops and bars. In the eyes of the community – long-term and new residents, foreign and local – is this change a sign of evolution and opportunity, or is it a threat to their heritage?
Uncle Kau has called Sai Ying Pun his home for over 60 years. While relaxing on a bench in the King George V Memorial Park, he recalls memories of his childhood. According to him, the busy streets and the vivacious community you see today don’t even begin to cover the lively atmosphere of the old Sai Ying Pun. He remembers how loud music and chatter used to fill the streets, and how the old and young would gather at the park for a friendly game of chess. Uncle Kau believes that Sai Ying Pun’s long-term residents were a close-knit community and have remained so to this day. With the many changes that have occurred in the area within the last decade, he notices how the streets have calmed down. Although there are moments of the day that bring the same laughter and chatter as the olden days, it’s not the same as how it used to be.
Ms Lee, an elderly lady who also calls the Sai Ying Pun area to be her home, strolls past the bench Uncle Kau is sitting on. “People used to say ‘hi’ to one another, everyone knew each other,” she recalls. However, Ms Lee doesn’t seem to mind the ever-changing nature of the community. “[Change] is necessary for development, it’s not a bad thing,” she states. Both her and Uncle Kau appreciate the development in the area. They believe that change can allow new opportunities and sites to be created for both Sai Ying Pun’s current residents and generations to come. “It’s nice to see new things,” Ms Lee says. However, this evolution comes at a price, one that they both think could affect the affordability of Sai Ying Pun for newcomers to the area.
Head down from the park to First street, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by new high rise apartments as well as some of the earliest Tong Laus in the area, dating back to before the Second World War. Here you’ll also find the Western Garden Neighborhood Elderly Center, a volunteer centre dedicated to helping the elderly to interact with and impact their local communities. Mr Lam, a manager at the centre, explains how the neighbourhood’s sense of community hasn’t changed much over the years because it’s “strongly rooted”. He claims that not many of the elderly people in the community have left. Sai Ying Pun is seeing an increase in expats, but he doesn’t see many interactions between locals and foreigners. Mr Lam believes that the local elderly are “okay with the current developments,” but if change continues to occur at the same rate, it could come at the cost of middle-class residents, as it has in the past, and public facilities like parks and post-war Tong Laus. These changes won’t be appreciated by some of the older local residents.
Property consultant Ms Buckthought, whose office is based nearby Central, has worked with many clients on many different types of residential buildings all over Hong Kong. As she sits outside in the garden area of Second Street, she’s surrounded by the contrast of the Island Crest towers on one side, and more recently upgraded Tong Laus on the other. From her point of view, Sai Ying Pun is a part of Hong Kong with a great deal of character. The fusion of culture, architecture and different communities creates an interesting atmosphere that accommodates a wide range of residents. “You’ve got fancy bars right next to motor services and [older] businesses,” she says.
Contrary to the opinions of the elderly in the area, Ms Buckthought believes that the people of Hong Kong need to work towards conserving the tenements. They need to do so by developing the interior facilities such as utilities while maintaining the beauty and character of the exterior. She notes that many expats and foreigners do in fact prefer living in these pre-war style buildings as they are more spacious compared to newer high-rise towers. In terms of the effect on the general community, as someone who lives in a building that is predominantly housing local residents, Ms Buckthought doesn’t see the same interactions between people as Ms Lee saw in her community. “[It’s not just the buildings or people] that changed, life changed,” she says.
Change is inevitable. To the elderly residents, seeing that change in the neighbourhood isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it allows for new opportunities. For newcomers to the area – whether they’re foreigners, expats, or the younger generation – being able to preserve some part of the neighbourhood’s history helps maintain its charm and character. The neighbourhood may be physically changing and evolving, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the people have to lose their sense of heritage. Gentrification has allowed newcomers to not only feel more welcome but has allowed them to explore different cultures and lifestyles. Though it may be bittersweet to lose a sense of the past, an era that has led to the present, it’s important to understand that moving from the past allows us to evolve to our futures.
Vrishti is a student in Hong Kong who has lived here for 3 years and is currently interning at iDiscover. She enjoys writing, visual arts and anything that involves thinking creatively and learning new things.
iDiscover Neighbourhood Mapping & Storytelling Internship Project
This story is part of a 2-week iDiscover Internship Project. Under our mentorship, a group of recent high school graduates and undergraduate students unveiled the historical layers in three old Hong Kong neighbourhoods: Kennedy Town, Shek Tong Tsui and Sai Ying Pun. They learnt the stories of old streets, long-time residents and popular shopkeepers, and dived deep into the local culture and living heritage. Zooming in to neighbourhood level, the student interns set out to discover and analyse what makes this city unique, and published their observations in the form of blogs, vlogs, an app route, and a place identity report.
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